Friday, March 26, 2010

Hurtin' Heroes

All right, quick quiz: who's the prolific, (180 books) manly, adventurer/author pictured above? If you guessed Thriller Guy you're forgiven, it's an understandable mistake, but you're wrong. That's Lester Dent, author of the Doc Savage series, books that were also made into a radio show, movies and comic books. And which are still available today.

TG recently finished reading and reviewing an excellent thriller (sorry, contractually I cannot name this book for several months), where the hero had by page 67 been badly beaten up three times, stabbed and generally mistreated by friend and foe alike. After finishing the book, TG realized that these days most heroes are getting off pretty light when it comes to being on the receiving end of physical mayhem. Sure, there are exceptions like Ray Banks' characters and a few others, but most big-name authors are letting their guys off easy. They might pick up a flesh wound toward the end of a book, but generally they win all their fist fights and escape relatively unscathed after other attempts are made on their lives. It was not always thus.

When the young folk gather at TG's knee and ask for help with their cute little novels, TG always counsels: “Make the best possible characters and then do the worst possible things to them.” Actually, TG thinks he stole that line from John Irving, but John will never notice this little blog and he wouldn't care anyway. Actually, many years ago, John slept with one of TG's old girlfriends, but that's another story and TG never carries a grudge. (Big shout-out to John -- Still living in New Hampshire and writing about bears?)

Anyway, until recently heroes had to work hard and take a lot of punishment to come out on top of the villains. Lester Dent knew that, and Doc Savage, while fabulously tough and smart, took his lumps and more with every adventure. Note the torn shirt, which was de rigeur on all of this series' pulp covers. Doc wasn't a superhero, but, well, let's let Wikipedia do the explaining...

Doc Savage's real name was Clark Savage, Jr.. He was a physician, surgeon, scientist, adventurer, inventor, explorer, researcher, and, as revealed in The Polar Treasure, a musician. A team of scientists assembled by his father deliberately trained his mind and body to near-superhuman abilities almost from birth, giving him great strength and endurance, a photographic memory, a mastery of the martial arts, and vast knowledge of the sciences. Doc is also a master of disguise and an excellent imitator of voices. "He rights wrongs and punishes evildoers." Dent described the hero as a mix of Sherlock Holmes' deductive abilities, Tarzan's outstanding physical abilities, Craig Kennedy's scientific education, and Abraham Lincoln's goodness. Dent described Doc Savage as manifesting "Christliness." Doc's character and world-view is displayed in his oath, which goes as follows:

Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it. Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do. Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.”

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, That's a very fine credo, but what the hell is the point here, TG? Sorry. The point is that Lester Dent wrote an instructive short essay on how to plot a 6000 word short story. It's a useful instruction for not just short story writers, but novelists as well. Perspective authors and professional authors alike would do well to read the essay and apply its lessons to their own writing, particularly Dent's repeated instructions on how to treat your hero: “Introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble.” “Shovel more grief onto the hero.” “A surprising plot twist in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad.” and again: “Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.”

So let's get with it, thriller writers; time to start beating the crap out of your heroes.


  1. I'm hoping to get Brendan Fraser to make a genuine Doc Savage movie. Maybe your post will do it. :)

  2. I know I'm reluctant to have my protagonists get shot. Even non-fatal gunshot wounds frequently have severe and long-lasting effects, even after the victim has made a successful recovery. Typically, the consequences involve some form of major disfigurement and/or permanent disability. As a rule, all gunshot wounds are considered medical emergencies that require immediate hospital treatment. So I started collecting various injuries that would be believable, painful, cringeworthy - yet would not maim my hero, and would avoid the totally cliche bullet in the shoulder stupidity that you see in so many hollywood stories.

  3. I recently has a small mole removed from the top of my head -- it left me with a horrible (and I mean horrible!) headache for four days where I just sat around and took major meds. Yet it was really was insignificant compared to the mayhem done to these characters (think, The Big Sleep). Yet they just bounce up, take a slug of whiskey and keep rockin! Tough guys rule, but make it realistic, ok?